- Panic Fiction:Women's Responses to Antebellum Economic Crisis
In December 1836, a Massachusetts widow named Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee published a short novel entitled Three Experiments of Living, with subtitles defining the "three experiments" as "Living Within the Means," "Living up to the Means," and "Living Beyond the Means." The novel tells the story of Frank and Jane Fulton, a young Boston physician and his wife who start out poor, become prosperous, then are ruined by commercial and domestic debts. Many of the elements of Lee's narrative are familiar to readers of nineteenth-century domestic fiction. The young protagonists, virtuous in their early poverty, become corrupted by their exposure to the world of fashion, tempted away from their industry and benevolence by greed and social ambition. Their ever-increasing extravagance—financed by speculation and borrowed money—proves their downfall, as a "sudden change" in the financial markets brings bankruptcy and a return to relative poverty. Like countless characters in antebellum didactic fiction, Frank and Jane learn that gradual ascension is better than rapid gain and that a simple domestic life is more virtuous than participation in fashionable society.
What is less familiar, even surprising, about this tale is Lee's focus on speculation as a cause of financial failure and her fairly explicit economic commentary on the dangers of debt. While the Fultons' downfall is clearly rooted in moral failings, it plays out as the result of a series of reckless and unwise financial decisions. Lee structures the novel around Frank's increasingly risky financial ventures, from his investment of their life savings in an interest-bearing enterprise, to his purchase of an expensive house on credit, to his final abandonment of medicine in order to speculate full time. At a time when domestic authors were helping to construct the notion of the home as isolated and protected from market forces, Lee unexpectedly brings the two together, illustrating both the impact of economic behavior on domestic life and the influence (for good or ill) of private character on financial decisions. In short, she undermines the developing ideology of separate spheres, using the conventions of domestic fiction to engage in economic discourse.1
The timing of Lee's novel helps to explain her anxious concern about speculation and spending on credit. During the spring of 1836, new access to western lands had sparked an unprecedented economic boom throughout the nation, fueled by plentiful bank credit and rising prices. By the end of the year, however, as Lee was writing Three Experiments of Living, the boom was [End Page 1] already showing signs of weakening and the frenzied speculation in western lands and stocks made many observers uneasy. Just a few months later, in March 1837, pressure from foreign creditors and new governmental monetary policies created a shortage of specie, forcing many banks to contract credit and plunging dozens of credit-dependent enterprises into bankruptcy; hundreds more were to follow in the next few months. By May, a full-scale panic ensued. Banks across the nation stopped cashing their own notes, prompting further bankruptcies and massive unemployment. For a full year, banks remained suspended, during which time the panic evolved into a devastating depression that lasted well into the 1840s.2
Opponents of outgoing President Andrew Jackson blamed the panic on Jackson's "misrule" in removing federal deposits from the United States Bank and attempting to regulate paper money. Jackson's Democratic supporters, on the other hand, attributed the crisis to a combination of excessive credit, a bloated paper currency, and villainous bankers who, in recalling loans and suspending payment, "suck[ed] out the profits of the merchants, and squeez[ed] the last drop of blood out of the mechanic."3 Debate in the nation's newspapers centered on the very issues Lee addressed in her novel—the risks of a speculative economy, sustained by credit and paper money rather than by hard currency.
Lee was not alone in responding to the Panic of 1837 through fiction; indeed, Three Experiments was only one of the earliest of an entire genre of such texts that I have termed "panic fiction."4 Between 1836 and 1840, an outpouring of dozens...